Unpaid lawmakers? Don’t tell the Founders’ ghosts.
By Al Kamen,
The radio talks are ablaze with demands that members of Congress share the pain with everyone else and not be paid during a federal shutdown. Most everyone agrees it’s a splendid idea.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced a bill in mid-February to bar members from being paid in such an event. That passed the Senate without objection a couple of weeks later. She’s repeatedly called on House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to get the bill passed in the House.
The House hasn’t moved on Boxer’s bill. But Boehner told ABC News chief political correspondent George Stephanopoulos on Wednesday that he agreed with her.
“No, they shouldn’t be getting paid,” he told Stephanopoulos, who tweeted the exchange early Thursday. “Just like federal employees shouldn’t be getting paid.” (Of course, federal employees who are considered “essential” will be getting paid, but it’s hard to imagine any member of Congress pretending to be essential to anything.)
So it looks as though there may be House action on this soon, and one would assume, with the active support of the tea party, the bill will pass.
Granted, as soon as the measure passes, some legal nitpickers will argue that it’s unconstitutional, under Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution, which reads:
“The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States.”
The sainted Founders, though many of them slaveholders, weren’t idiots — and they were keen observers of human nature. They obviously envisioned someone trying to cut off congressional pay or some members lifting a wad of cash for miscellaneous expenses.
On the other hand, if the pay level is “ascertained by law,” then Congress might be allowed to ascertain it down from the current $174,000 a year to zero or perhaps a couple of bucks.
That provision, said former acting solicitor general Walter Dellinger, has “no provision that any member of Congress be paid at all, just that if they’re paid, it has to be ‘ascertained by law,’ ” meaning “they can’t just dip into a pot of money.”
The 27th Amendment, also originally passed by the Founders but not ratified until 1992, might be a bigger obstacle. It says: “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”
The intent of the amendment, of course, was to keep lawmakers from giving themselves pay raises, not cuts.
But the legislation’s constitutionality may be irrelevant, as a practical matter. The only people who might be deemed to have legal standing to sue could be, yes, aggrieved — and courageous — members of Congress.
If those members were to win in court, they would of course continue enjoying their paychecks — until the recall election or January 2012, whichever comes first.
Name that ruin
Deadline is Monday to enter the first Loop Iraq Naming Opportunities contest for 2011. This is to rename Iraqi streets, towns, rivers and such to honor U.S. officials for their efforts there during the war. One possibility: The “Just Like Germany Underpass,” in honor of former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and others who compared the situation in Iraq to the last days of the Third Reich.
Send your entries to NamingOpps@washpost.com. The contest deadline is April 11. You must include a telephone number to be eligible. Winners, to be chosen by an independent panel of experts, will receive a mention in the column and one of those coveted In the Loop T-shirts. Ties broken by date of entry. Don’t delay!
Just call it No Pay Week
This month’s Bad Timing Award goes to President Obama, who signed a proclamation Thursday, as the possible government shutdown approached, naming next week “National Volunteer Week.” Furloughed federal employees are not allowed to volunteer to stay on their jobs, however.
(If the shutdown is averted, the award will be withdrawn.)
The State Department a while back initiated something called the Sounding Board, which was an in-house electronic town hall and suggestion box where the Foreign Service folks could discuss matters of import and get their views known to higher-ups.
Seemed fairly inside baseball for the most part, with many discussions about “overseas comparability pay” or medical evacuation policies or improving visa procedures and such. A good tool for internal discussion, though not worth spending a lot of time perusing.
But a recent discussion on the Sounding Board — about abolishing the Sounding Board itself — seemed worth a look. There was this posting, submitted by “Anonymous.”
“My real concern is the potential the Sounding Board has to embarrass the department,” the writer said, noting that “department employees are constantly derided as entitled, pampered bureaucrats who attend cocktail parties and live it up in Europe at the expense of the hardworking taxpayer.”
Some of that may be due to the inordinate media attention given to political ambassadors serving in fine European capitals vs. the majority of employees who work in unpleasant and even dangerous places.
The “stereotype is completely untrue,” the anonymous poster said, “but a casual perusal of the Sounding Board, particularly the many threads in which posters argue for more benefits, on top of the generous package we already have, could convince one otherwise.”
Then this warning: “A single ‘In The Loop’ item could damage the Department’s image for years to come.” (Demonstrably false.)
Another employee agreed. “I live in fear of the Washington Post reading one of the less-than-professional posts and having a field day!” she wrote.
(Note to file: Start paying more attention to the Sounding Board.)